“Todd Rundgren’s Utopia: Live at the Chicago Theater” features their essential mid-’70s oeuvre

By on April 23, 2019

Last year, Todd Rundgren’s seminal prog-rock/power pop band Utopia reunited for the first time after a thirty-two year hiatus and hit the road, performing many songs from their essential mid-’70s oeuvre.

Earlier this month, one of those live concert performances — filmed at the Chicago Theater on May 22, 2018 — was released on Blu-ray/DVD as Todd Rundgren’s Utopia: Live at the Chicago Theater, which you’ll now find streaming in our Arena Rock & Top 40 Hitmakers section on Night Flight Plus!

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Among their 24-song set, Utopia fans can expect to hear some of their favorite instrumentals like “The Ikon,” “Another Life,” and a fifteen-minute rendition of “Utopia Theme.”

There are also great vocal performances of “Set Me Free,” “Freedom Fighters,” “The Wheel,” and covers of the Move’s “Do Ya” (they’d recorded the song a year before Jeff Lynne re-recorded a hit version with ELO) and Stephen Sondheim’s “Something’s Coming” (from West Side Story).

Don’t expect to hear anything from their Beatles-parodying Deface the Music album, however.

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In March of 2018, when North American dates were being scheduled, Rundgren announced that keyboardist Roger Powell (he’s also the developer of ARP synthesizers) wasn’t up to the task.

Progressive-era Utopia keyboardist Ralph Schuckett was drafted in to take Powell’s place, joining longtime bassist/guitarist/vocalist Kasim Sulton and drummer John “Willie” Wilcox.

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Then, very soon thereafter, Rundgren released the following statement to his loyal music community:

“Due to unexpected health issues, unfortunately Ralph Schuckett will be unable to tour with Utopia this spring. While discussing a replacement keyboardist, it occurred to us that there may be someone out there who already knows the music and vocal parts and would like an opportunity to tour with us. So if you think you could fill those big shoes, we invite you to submit an audio and/or video sample to us.”

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Utopia’s announcement said that the band were on a “very fast track” and that band rehearsals were beginning in another two weeks, so they were really looking for someone who knew the music already and could hit the ground running.

Fairly unknown Israeli vocalist/synth player Gil Assayas stepped up to the challenge, and you can see him here playing tracks — including some of their more complex earlier musical arrangements, no doubt a daunting task for even the most seasoned musician — from each of Utopia’s ten studio albums.

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Amid swirling colors and lighting effects, Utopia’s stage set includes a floor-to-ceiling screen filled with amazing album-oriented imagery, including floating eyeballs, shooting stars, smoking pyramids and images of the Egyptian sun god Ra.

Early on, Rundgren and the band appear in outrageous and eye-catching stage clothing designed by Rachel Culp’s Deep Blue “C” company.

Culp, the daughter of the late actor Robert Culp, has also designed one-of-a-kind custom rock star clothing for the Tubes, the Grateful Dead, Blue Öyster Cult, Jefferson Starship and dozens more.

Feel free to browse & shop on Rachel’s Etsy page (and tell her Night Flight sent you).

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Read more about Todd Rundgren & Utopia below.

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Before founding Utopia, Todd Rundgren had already broke into the mainstream in the early ’70s with his awesome solo album Something/Anything, and Top 40 hits like “Hello It’s Me,” “I Saw the Light,” and “Can We Still Be Friends.”

Rundgren has also been a high-in-demand producer, working with artists like Meat Loaf, the New York Dolls, the Band, Badfinger, XTC, Hall & Oates, the Psychedelic Furs, and many, many others.

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He also produced innovative music videos, pioneered forms of multimedia, and was an early adopter and promoter of various computer technologies.

More recently, Rundgren has played with Ringo Starr’s All-Starr Bands and fronted the New Cars, a new-millennium spin-off the ’70s/ ’80s hitmakers.

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Utopia — always considered one of Rundgren’s more ambitious musical projects, sometimes using as many as three keyboardists — were originally conceived by Rundgren as a way to showcase his guitar playing, their longer tracks allowing him to put his own spin on then-popular rock and jazz movements and sub-genres, including progressive/prog-rock and fusion.

Over time, the band members — they all wrote and sang lead vocals — began to have more say in what Utopia were doing as a band, although Rundgren was always (and still is) considered their leader.

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At a time when most rock albums were still running about fifteen to twenty-two minutes per side, “The Ikon” filled out the entire B-side of the their debut, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, released on Bearsville in 1974.

Utopia eventually began embracing both power pop and new wave elements while moving further away from prog and ultimately slimmed down to a quartet, debuting with their 1976 album Ra, which found them moving more towards recording more-conventional, shorter songs.

They even managed to score a hit single (#27 U.S.) with “Set Me Free,” a track from Adventures in Utopia (1979).

Utopia, however, were never considered a commercial act, and some of their ’80s releases were seen by many simply as Rundgren using the band to experiment with new state-of-the-art recording techniques and gadgetry.

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With the exception of a brief Japan tour in 1992 — Redux ’92: Live in Japan was released shortly afterwards — Utopia had previously not toured in thirty-three years.

Todd Rundgren’s Utopia: Live at the Chicago Theater — available in 2-CD sets and double-LP green vinyl gatefold releases too — arrives just as Rundgren begins his next world tour.

He’ll also be signing copies of his brand new autobiography, The Individualist: Digressions, Dreams & Dissertations.

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Watch Todd Rundgren’s Utopia: Live at the Chicago Theater on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.